May Day Baskets?
May 3, 2010 7:47 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever heard of giving "May Day baskets" in the US?

I am from the East Coast and have never heard of this. My spouse, from the Mid-West, says that it was traditional, some years ago, to give teachers (and others?) baskets of fresh flowers on the first of May. Although the month of May seems to be associated with the Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic tradition, this seems to have been a practice in fundamentalist, non-Catholic areas of the country?
posted by Morrigan to Society & Culture (52 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
When I was in elementary school (mid to late '70s, central Kansas) it was a huge tradition. We would make May baskets and flowers out of construction paper, crepe paper, and other crafty doodads, and bring them home to our parents and neighbors. I remember the elderly neighbors absolutely loving the gesture. I think the tradition has died out, though, because when my kids were in elementary school (1990s, also central Kansas) it wasn't really mentioned at all.
posted by amyms at 7:52 PM on May 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yes, I good friend of mine used to make paper baskets and hang them on her neighbors doorknobs as a child. However, neither she nor I are Catholic.

Hope that helps
posted by SummerRose86 at 7:52 PM on May 3, 2010

Midwesterner here, neither Roman Catholic or Fundamentalist ... started giving May baskets to my girlfriend in the 1970's (her birthday is in early May). Our 35th wedding anniversary is in mid-May :) Still give her flowers, not always in baskets.
posted by Rain Man at 7:53 PM on May 3, 2010

Also wanted to mention that my elderly neighbors and relatives have talked about having Maypoles at school for May Day, so that's another tradition that's gone by the wayside.
posted by amyms at 7:54 PM on May 3, 2010

Lifetime east-coaster (and devout atheist) here; never heard of it.
posted by ixohoxi at 7:55 PM on May 3, 2010

Indifferently adhered-to tradition in St. Louis, now outdated.
posted by adipocere at 7:56 PM on May 3, 2010

Me too! Also from Kansas (north central)! We would fill our construction-paper baskets with homemade cookies, candy and lilacs, always, always amazingly beautiful sprigs of lilacs, since that was just the time they started to bloom -- and drive past our neighbors farm houses and try to put them in the mailboxes and make our getaway before the neighbors could see. So fun. I loved that tradition.

P.S. At least as far as my family and my family's friends went, this had nothing to do with religion. Also, I am not Catholic.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 7:57 PM on May 3, 2010

I can remember May day celebrations in Southern Indiana in the early 1980s - but I don't remember any after 1985 or so.

We would take baskets of flowers to the teachers and also have school-wide events in the gymnasium at school - the older kids would do the maypole dance (I seem to remember it being choreographed traditionally - like "Oh, the 8th graders get to dance the maypole dance!") with the tether-ball poles and long rags of colorful fabric and the younger ones would have art contests like "Who can draw the best picture of what May Day means". It was always this weird mix of "YAY! Spring!" with unionist undertones.

As an adult looking back, I am always surprised that that happened during the Reagan administration.
posted by Tchad at 8:00 PM on May 3, 2010

Ohh I'm glad hapax_legomenon mentioned lilacs. I had forgotten about that. We used to sneak lilac sprigs from the bushes of a house on the way home from school and add them to our baskets. They smelled wonderful. And, adding to the datapoints, I was/am non-religious.
posted by amyms at 8:01 PM on May 3, 2010

Texan, non-fundamentalist, non-Catholic. We made baskets by weaving strips of construction paper, filled them with flowers, and hung them on my parents' bedroom doorknobs. I believe it was mentioned as a craft idea in one of the Girl Scout handbooks.

In school, we danced around the maypole.
posted by Houstonian at 8:03 PM on May 3, 2010

Pacific Northwest (Portland) childhood. I did this with Mom's help until I was about 8, when we moved to the other side of the hill and I wasn't the only kid in the neighborhood any more. Strip-woven construction paper and flowers from our garden, including lilacs.

Raised Catholic, and Catholic primary school, but I don't think we did this in school after first grade.
posted by catlet at 8:07 PM on May 3, 2010

I remember weaving baskets out of construction paper too. I had forgotten about the flowers. This was in Texas in the late 80s/early 90s.
posted by donajo at 8:07 PM on May 3, 2010

I think Tchad might have the missing piece: In everywhere but the US, May Day is a day for the celebration of workers and workers' rights and struggles. However, Wikipedia supports Catholicism as the origin of this particular tradition. Why has it spilled over into non-Catholic areas? My guess would be regional diffusion (people do it cause their neighbors do, and its a fun, community building activity) or as a celebration of one of May Day's other significances, with this particular expression borrowed from nearby Catholics.
posted by Truthiness at 8:08 PM on May 3, 2010

Oh, yeah. Grew up in Michigan. Used to creep around before dawn leaving May Day baskets on friends' doorsteps. Haven't thought of that in years. I should do it with my kids next year. It was sort of a retro thing to do by the early 80s.
posted by not that girl at 8:10 PM on May 3, 2010

Many people in my New England elementary school participated in May Day festivities. I wasn't one of them, despite being from a Catholic family.

I don't think it lasted past middle school, as in my elementary school years coincided with some of the last years of May Day as a large enough thing to mean something in my area.
posted by zizzle at 8:12 PM on May 3, 2010

I was raised fundamentalist, but we did this at public school, not at or related to church. We did the baskets and the May pole - like someone said, tetherball pole with crepe paper or ribbons tied at the top and then the kids dance around it weaving the ribbons. Wichita and St. Louis.
posted by valeries at 8:12 PM on May 3, 2010

Thank you for raising up a memory I had lodged away and forgotten. We made May Day baskets in my kindergarten and first grade in New Jersey in public school in the mid-70s. We made ours by cutting the tops off of half-pint milk cartons and stapling a handle on. There was some process for covering up the milk carton, probably involving construction paper. And then we would put flowers in it. I may even remember making pretend flowers out of paper petals and pipe-cleaner stems. And we also danced around the Maypole and played "A Tisket a Tasket" on May Day.
posted by Miko at 8:17 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have definitely experienced May Day baskets and dancing around the Maypole in the Midwest- Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, etc. particularly in areas settled by Swedish and German immigrants. Got one on my desk this morning at work, actually.
posted by questionsandanchors at 8:18 PM on May 3, 2010

Catholic (Irish/Cajun French), parochial school educated, Texas. We made these baskets in the early years, but I always thought of them as mother's day projects, other people called them May Baskets, and I think it may have been the German and Czech kids (or hybrids, we were all mongols of the Catholic settlers of Texas), that called them that. So it could depend on the number of central Europeans in a region, rather than the sect or actual area.
posted by Some1 at 8:20 PM on May 3, 2010

Another Kansan here who made these in public grade school in the early 60's. Construction paper, woven into a basket or perhaps just rolled into a cone, with a construction paper strip for a handle. Flowers from somebody's yard, usually lilacs, and hard candy. Wikipedia jogged my memory that the deliverer of a May basket was to ring the doorbell and run; the penalty for being caught was a kiss!

I don't think we understood any particular significance to this activity beyond some vague tradition. No religious or ethnic overtones at all.
posted by Snerd at 8:21 PM on May 3, 2010

Yes! I grew up in Wisconsin and we'd always fill baskets (homemade with weaved construction paper to be really authentic) with candies and little gifts and deliver them to neighbor friends before school. The best part was ringing the doorbell and running away. Now I live in DC....and no one mentioned the day. Also, I was not raised Catholic.
posted by koselig at 8:22 PM on May 3, 2010

Central Massachusetts, early 80's, public elementary school, no religious context that I can recall: We made half-assed May Day baskets that I seem to recall involved gluing crepe and/or tissue paper to styrofoam cups, adding a pipe cleaner handle, filling them with those chalky "Kentucky mint" candies and then... maybe taking them home? The details are a bit hazy.

I never understood why we made them and I don't remember it ever being explained.
posted by usonian at 8:22 PM on May 3, 2010

Jewish. Western MA. We did this. don't remember it being associated with religion, but my hometown was predominantly Catholic.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:25 PM on May 3, 2010

I am in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and kids still do this. In fact, I know several kids who were bummed that May 1 was a Saturday, and thus not a school day, because they didn't get to do it as an organized school activity this year. And this is the public schools-not the parochial ones. However, I am originally from Texas and had never heard Mayday baskets until I moved here.
posted by supercapitalist at 8:26 PM on May 3, 2010

Early 80s in Northern Maine we still did this. We made little baskets out of tissue paper, filled them with candy, and left them on the doorsteps of our friends and neighbors.

There were a lot of Catholics and Protestants in the town. Not sure if there was any association.
posted by lampoil at 8:28 PM on May 3, 2010

Rural Iowa late 70s (non-denominational) and we TOTALLY did this, complete with ringing doorbells and running away. After my family moved to Des Moines in 1981 I never saw another maybasket, but I think about them every year.
posted by lilnublet at 8:30 PM on May 3, 2010

My mom liked/likes to make them. She was raised in the Midwest (Illinois, Swedish/German background).
posted by Madamina at 8:33 PM on May 3, 2010

Central Nebraska -- early 90s, we made them ourselves (often out of styrofoam cups with pipe cleaner handles), filled them with candy, and hung them on our neighbors' doors before school.
posted by pril at 8:35 PM on May 3, 2010

This is an old Pagan tradition for the first of May. Giving the May baskets are a fertility blessing and has nothing to do with the church. See Beltane/Beltain.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 8:41 PM on May 3, 2010

It is known of in the northwest, however, most people don't tend to participate. It's more of a child holiday. The kids I used to babysit made a few paper-mâché flowers and gave them to me one year.
posted by mentionblue at 8:50 PM on May 3, 2010

I remember doing it in parts of Minnesota and Iowa with german/swedish background. I don't remember any explanation being given. And I definitely didn't learn about the labor/union/communism angle until high school.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 8:50 PM on May 3, 2010

Just another data point -- I remember this from early elementary school (c. 1970, small-town central Indiana). We did the woven construction paper baskets at school, then filled them with stuff like wild violets, dandelions, crocuses, and lilacs. Whatever was blooming then. I can remember hanging the basket on the front door knob of the elderly woman next door, then knocking and running away. We may have also done them for grandmothers; I associate it specifically with older women. I don't think we did the maypole, but I'm not sure. I have no idea if it's still done.
posted by worldswalker at 9:15 PM on May 3, 2010

Yes, exactly what worldswalker describes, in the Seattle area in the 1970s.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 9:24 PM on May 3, 2010

Has the tradition of May baskets wilted away? -- Mpls Star-Tribune, April 30, 2010
posted by dhartung at 9:26 PM on May 3, 2010

My father (from a heavily Catholic town in New Mexico) did this every year, construction-paper baskets and wildflowers, left on neighbors' doorsteps, knock and run away. We kids helped. It was theoretically anonymous, but no one else in the little Protestant Oklahoma community I grew up in had ever heard of the custom, so... it was pretty much us.
posted by ormondsacker at 9:32 PM on May 3, 2010

Another Michigander here - we never left baskets of flowers, but we would leave bouquets on doorsteps in the early morning. (Even though in some years it was pretty tough to find wildflowers that were blooming on May Day.)
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:40 PM on May 3, 2010

I grew up in NYC. We had maypoles and May Day baskets with flowers.
posted by fifilaru at 9:42 PM on May 3, 2010

We made construction paper May Day baskets in my Missouri kindergarten, and then I moved around a lot (mostly east coast) and never saw a May Day basket again until a couple years ago - I was working in DC and a coworker who is a native Minnesotan appeared in the office with little baskets of candy and distributed them to all her (deeply bewildered) colleagues. I had completely forgotten about May Day baskets until that moment.
posted by naoko at 9:45 PM on May 3, 2010

Growing up in Iowa, we made May-day baskets, put candy in them, set them on a friend's front porch, and ding-dong ditched them. It was the only time my mom condoned that particular behavior.
posted by PhatLobley at 9:49 PM on May 3, 2010

Boise, Idaho. Suburbia.

Our family (ethnic minority/non-religious in a community with a very high white+Mormon population) got a May basket one time when I was 10, and in theory it was anonymous, but they didn't really do a good job being quiet (my kid sister and I heard them fussing on our doorstep before they ran away). It was from a Mormon family that lived down the street from us. 4 daughters, all homeschooled.

I don't recall making May baskets in school. Maybe I did?? I definitely knew what the basket was. Plus the craftyness and resemblance to Easter baskets seems like something the gradeschools in that area would have done. But the practice must have been on its way out ...

May poles on the other hand were definitely from a gauzey, far-away, long-ago place in storybooks, not in Boise. Heh.
posted by phonebia at 10:50 PM on May 3, 2010

Central California, mid 70's public school. I only remember doing this one year, and the baskets were made out of milk cartons like Miko describes. May poles were a regular thing though, we did that every year along with making floral or ribbon wreaths for our hair.
posted by cali at 11:45 PM on May 3, 2010

I'm from the East Coast (New York and a largely Episcopalian and Jewish part of CT) and have lived in the Midwest and I'd never heard of this until last week, when I read this article in Yankee Magazine . It provides nothing in the way of historical background but seems to suggest it is, or was, a New England tradition too.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:24 AM on May 4, 2010

Grew up Catholic in Wisconsin in the 80s at a Catholic school and we never did this (though later in May we would usually have a Marian celebration).
posted by drezdn at 4:43 AM on May 4, 2010

I was raised Lutheran in Wyoming, and we did this for most of the 90s. Wasn't religious or school-related, though, it was all my mom's doing (and she grew up Protestant in Nebraska). Construction paper baskets with flowers and baked goods/candy, left them on neighbors' doorsteps early in the morning. Mr. Phisbe, a native Minnesotan, also remembers this from his childhood.
posted by phisbe at 5:58 AM on May 4, 2010

It was definitely practiced as a non-religious Victorian tradition in New England, judging by literary evidence. Louisa May Alcott writes about "gathering the May" in her books - especially Rose in Bloom, I think. Like a lot of seasonal rituals it is definitely pre-Christian. I recall some stuff from British folk song about crowning a "Queen o' the May" with flowers, and a lot of traditional songs reference May as a time for courting and flirting. A flower basket gift goes well with that purpose.

It does seem to be a tradition going by the way. Too bad - it's a nice idea. If someone made me a May basket I wouldn't object.
posted by Miko at 6:10 AM on May 4, 2010

I don't remember it in Rose in Bloom, but there is a chapter called "May Baskets" in Jack and Jill (Gutenberg text file link).
The job now in hand was May baskets, for it was the custom of the
children to hang them on the doors of their friends the night before
May-day; and the girls had agreed to supply baskets if the boys would
hunt for flowers, much the harder task of the two.
posted by paduasoy at 6:28 AM on May 4, 2010

Oops, it was Eight Cousins:
Just then a pleasant sound of happy voices came up from the garden, and smiles broke out on all serious faces. Dr. Alec turned at once, saying, as he threw back his head, "There she is; now for it!"

The cousins had been a-Maying, and soon came flocking in laden with the spoils.

"Here is our bonny Scotch rose with all her thorns about her," said Dr. Alec, surveying her with unusual pride and tenderness, as she went to show Aunt Peace her basket full of early flowers, fresh leaves, and curious lichens."
posted by Miko at 6:36 AM on May 4, 2010

I live down the block from a Catholic Church in the Midwest, and they do a May Day thing with the elementary school children and usually hang little paper baskets on our doorknob, with candy and child-made paper/tissue flowers. (And, yes, ring the bell and run, but it's during the school day so there's not always anyone home.)

I think it's charming. I never experienced it growing up (also in the Midwest) but around here it's a thing.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:54 AM on May 4, 2010

A search on Google Books turns this up from Good Housekeeping, 1899: "THE custom of hanging May baskets with offerings to one's friends, during the month of May, is a pretty and poetic one, but not universal. It has become, primarily, a sport for boys and girls."

posted by General Tonic at 6:54 AM on May 4, 2010

Nebraska methodist child who grew up in small town. We always made little baskets/papercups full of candy and flowers for May Day. But the most important part was to put it on the neighbor's doorstep, ring the door and RUN AWAY. Then the neighbor child would have to catch you. The RUN AWAY part was the most important-fun part.
posted by ninjakins at 7:35 AM on May 4, 2010

I went to parochial school outside Chicago, and we made May baskets for Mary. We also had an associated May Crowning Mass for Mary and offered the baskets to Mary. As a second grader, you wore your First Communion dress; eighth graders also got dressed up. Some girls crowned Mary during that Mass. (I was never so lucky.)
posted by quadrilaterals at 11:40 AM on May 4, 2010

Eastern Iowa in the mid to late '80s: we made "May Baskets" out of Styrofoam or Solo cups, filled them with candy and popcorn (usually with a Twizzler "handle") and left them on our neighbors' doorsteps. I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of children around my age, so May Day was almost as good as Halloween. My family's Catholic, but the non-Catholic children in the area also did this.
posted by epj at 4:22 PM on May 4, 2010

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